Rating research and ranking reports

How to measure and fund applied research excites in the UK and Aus, while Europeans abhor change

Good luck with that

If Industry Ministry Ian Macfarlane is wondering what to do with the complex industry research system he inherited from Labor (other than shut it down) he could do worse than read new suggestions from the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.  And then think twice about replacing the Opposition’s schemes with his own, “complexity, inconsistency and instability are key problems of Australian schemes designed to assist small and medium enterprises, AATSE argues.

According to the academy, a key issue in improving productivity is increasing cooperation between small and medium enterprises and academics. Easier, as AATSE acknowledges, said than done. Fort a start, the two sectors have different imperatives and working with SMEs does not make it on the metrics academics worry about. “This problem has recently been exacerbated by the introduction of the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) with its emphasis on publications in highly ranked journals.” One answer could be to create a new research impact measure, something people in the technology universities, but nobody much else, likes the idea of.  Another is vouchers, giving small business cash to spend on applied researchers in universities, along the lines of a no-fuss Victorian program. “Much of the appeal of the scheme to company and researcher alike is that the decision on the voucher is taken rapidly (within five weeks), and that the parties agree to a simple one page agreement.” AATSE also advocates reintroducing the R&D tax incentive for large corporations that commission technology based products from SME’s. Well there’s no harm in asking. It’s an understated idea compared to yesterday’s UK report by Sir Andrew Witty, which advocates spending 1bn stg of public money on picking research winners and lifting impact to 25 per cent in the next Research Excellence Framework. The shade of Harold “white heat of technology” Wilson will be pleased.

Good lord was that a political historian?

Indeed it was – and I thought the species was extinct. There was an excellent piece yesterday on the ABC’s The Drum site by Benjamin T West from the University of Western Sydney. It speculated on what 19th century Australian politicians would have made of the way their descendants slug the public purse for travel to triathlons, weddings and whatever and explained a world where MPs were not paid at all. It was an excellent bit of work, reminding readers so inclined that not all history is about race, gender and sexuality.

Apres MOOC le deluge

There is a splendid piece of arguing against the inevitable in the Harvard Business Review blog by Gianpiero Petriglieri from the elite INSEAD, the business school based at Fontainebleau, yes the place where the Bourbons had a palace. Dr Petriglieri sees MOOCS as a form of colonialism, taking over education and diminishing academic life. “MOOCS can be used as a cost-cutting measure in already depleted academic institutions and become another weapon against battered faculty bodies. They may worsen rather than eliminate inequality by providing credentials empty of the connections that make credentials valuable,” he writes. Good-oh, but like everybody in the music, movie and print media industries outlining the unsettling outcomes of change will not stop it. As Marcia Devlin said about on-line learning on Monday, “all universities that want to survive in the 21st century have to be in this space. That the HBR headlined Dr Petriglieri’s piece, “Let them eat MOOCs”, says it all.

Plaudits from Pyne

Education Minister Chris Pyne put out an entirely appropriate media statement last night congratulating Andrew and Nicola Forrest for their $65m donation to higher education in Western Australia. I give it to the end of the week at the latest before the suggestions start Mr Pyne plans to replace public funding with philanthropy.

Top ratings

Now ratings season is over its worth looking at what Andrejs Rauhvargers, the bloke who rates the raters, makes of the latest lot of league tables in the second edition of his report for the European Universities Association. Which is not much, suggesting it would help prospective students if the meaning of ratings were actually explained.

But working with what he has, Mr Rauhvargers details bibliometric changes in the established ratings, describes what new ones do and welcomes the way ranking providers warn against misuse of their products, specifically complimenting THE’s Phil Baty.

Overall, while pointing to the way they are shaping university strategies and even national policy, Mr Rauhvargers accepts that the rankings are here to stay. “Even if academics are aware that the results of rankings are biased and cannot satisfactorily measure institutional quality, on a more pragmatic level they also recognise that an impressive position in the rankings can be a key factor in securing additional resources, recruiting more students and attracting strong partner institutions.”

Not bad for a business model that repackages other peoples’ data as the astute commercial providers diversify their product base. “The current trend is thus for providers to accumulate large amounts of peripheral data on universities. It is ironic that the data submitted by universities free of charge is often sold back to the universities later in a processed form.”

In this morning’s The Australian Simon Marginson is said to call for academic solidarity in pointing out the manifest methodological flaws of rankings – it is a bit late for that, unless universities come up with an improved product of their own. The European U-Multirank (which groups like institutions and sets out attributes but does not rank universities) shows promise – but even before it launches university groups are arguing over methodology.

Concerned citizen

Staff at Murdoch University are voting on a proposal from the local branch of the National Tertiary Education Union  for protected industrial action. Management is offering 8 per cent over three years while the union wants four per cent by four.  The possibility of industrial action, including for example,  withholding exam results, which could impact students, (if this is actually proposed) has excited ire outside the university community.  Yesterday’s Melville Times carried a letter from Dr Phil Evans of Booragoon who wrote, “university academic staff generally enjoy favourable working conditions not enjoyed by the bulk of the workforce. As a consequence they are not only entrusted with the imparting of knowledge and fostering scholarship, but also of demonstrating high standards of ethical and professional conduct. To victimise students, particularly those who are about to graduate is both unconscionable and morally indefensible.”

Gosh I wonder if this is the same Dr Phil Evans who is deputy dean of law at Murdoch and past president Booragoon Rotary. I called Murdoch’s Dr Evans yesterday to ask but he did not get back to me, so I guess we will never know.

Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au